Donovan McNabb’s days in Philadelphia were numbered.
After the Eagles were embarrassed by the Ravens, 36-7 in Week 12 last season in Baltimore—a game in which McNabb was pulled for the first time in his career for second-year quarterback Kevin Kolb—McNabb was mired in the worst slump of his professional life.
McNabb had completed just 47 percent (53 of 112) of his passes and committed eight turnovers (six interceptions and two fumbles) in a three-game November stretch—a 36-31 loss to the New York Giants, a 13-13 tie against Cincinnati and the Baltimore blowout defeat.
The Eagles were 5-5-1 and in last place in the NFC East. Philadelphia fans had seen enough and were ready to move past the No. 5 era.
While everyone loves a comeback, even McNabb couldn’t have foreseen how quickly the quarterback would regain his Pro-Bowl form.
The Eagles, led by McNabb, won four of their last five games to sneak into the playoffs at 9-6-1 as the NFC’s second Wild Card, winning two road playoff games and coming within a drive of winning the NFC Championship.
What made McNabb’s comeback possible? Run-pass balance.
The statistics from Eagles’ 2008 season, including the playoffs, tell the story.
Eagles’ record when they ran the ball 23 times or less: 3-7-1
Eagles’ record when they ran the ball 24 or more times: 8-0
In their final five regular-season games, the Eagles ran the ball 40 times in a win over Arizona, 42 times in a win at the Giants, 33 times in win over Cleveland, 16 times in a loss at Washington and 36 times in their season-finale win over Dallas.
McNabb's stats in the final five games of the regular season: Completed 64 percent of his passes, throwing nine touchdowns and just one interception.
In their two playoff wins at Minnesota and the Giants, the Eagles ran the ball 23 and 28 times, respectively, even as running back Brian Westbrook was slowed by a knee injury.
In their 32-25 loss to Arizona in the NFC Championship, the Eagles only ran the ball 18 times while asking McNabb to attempt 47 passes.
A commitment to the run, which Eagles head coach Andy Reid has forever been hesitant to make, will make life so much easier for McNabb and the Philadelphia defense.
A consistent running game will help keep the 32-year-old McNabb healthy. He won’t have to drop back 40 or more times a game (which he did in seven games in 2008), lowering the number of hits he’ll take over the course of the season. McNabb has three times in his 10-year career suffered season-ending injuries.
A consistent running game will help the Eagles win the time-of-possession battle and keep the Philadelphia defense fresh. The Eagles quietly boasted the league’s fourth-best defense in terms of points allowed (18 per game) last season, behind only Pittsburgh, Tennessee and Baltimore.
In their eight wins when they ran the ball more than 24 times, Philadelphia allowed just 10.6 points per game. Running the ball consistently keeps both your defense and the opponent’s offense off the field.
A consistent running game will further open up the Eagles’ passing attack. Even without a strong running game last season (Philadelphia ranked 22nd in the league in rushing offense), the Eagles were the sixth-highest scoring team in the NFL (26 points per game), and McNabb threw for 3,913 yards (a career high) and 23 touchdowns.
This season, with wide receivers DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis, Jason Avant and first-round pick Jeremy Maclin, McNabb will work with the best collection of pass catchers he’s had since 2004, when McNabb and Terrell Owens helped the Eagles reach the Super Bowl.
Looking at Philadelphia’s offseason moves, the Eagles are building the running game McNabb has always lacked.
On the first day of free agency in February, the Eagles signed offensive lineman Stacy Andrews. The 6’7”, 342-pound right guard, who played five seasons in Cincinnati, will likely line up next to his younger brother, Shawn Andrews.
The younger Andrews will move from right guard to take over the right tackle position previously occupied by Jon Runyan.
Later in free agency, Philadelphia signed fullback Leonard Weaver, who played four seasons in Seattle. In the 6’0”, 242-pound Weaver, the Eagles for the first time in several years have a true run-blocking fullback who can carry the ball in short-yardage situations.
The Eagles’ biggest offseason move, and possibly most telling, was their trade in April for Buffalo offensive lineman Jason Peters for the 28th pick in the 2009 draft and two other later-round selections.
Peters, a 27-year-old left tackle, made the Pro Bowl the last two seasons and will replace long-time Philadelphia left tackle Tra Thomas. In Peters, at 6’4”, 340 pounds, the Eagles have one of the league’s best run-blocking left tackles who will also be responsible for protecting McNabb’s blind side.
Finally, in the draft, the Eagles found their running back of the future in LeSean McCoy. McCoy, a second-round pick out of Pittsburgh, played two seasons in college, rushing for 2,731 yards and scoring 36 touchdowns in 24 games. McCoy also caught 64 passes in his college career.
A younger, more talented offensive line. A hard-nosed fullback. A rookie running back to lessen the load on Westbrook, who will be 30 at the start of the season.
Last November, the questions about McNabb and his future in Philadelphia were endless.
It looks like the Eagles will rush to answer those questions in 2009.